For F. Murray Abraham, his ‘Amadeus’ role proved to be a dream come true

F. Murray Abraham as composer Antonio Salieri in "Amadeus" (1984): "It was truly like a miracle because every actor in the English language wanted that role."

Orion Pictures

Just imagine. Salieri in the film “Amadeus” could have been portrayed by the actor famous for the line “Say hello to my little friend.” 

In that scenario, the little friend would have been Mozart, as described by his archrival, Antonio Salieri. Yes, the great Al Pacino, whose performance as the gangster Tony Montana in “Scarface” (1983) remains one of his signature roles, lobbied to portray Italian composer Salieri in the movie version of “Amadeus” (1984), directed by emigré filmmaker Miloš Forman and based on Peter Shaffer’s hit play. Other famous names who threw their tricorn hats in the ring were Mick Jagger, Burt Reynolds, Donald Sutherland and Sam Waterson.

“Amadeus” went on to receive 11 Oscar nominations and won eight: for best picture, director, adapted screenplay and best actor: F. Murray Abraham as the covetous, often malevolent adversary, determined to best and possibly break his little friend, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. 

Filled with excerpts from Mozart’s scores, including his operas, symphonies and chamber works, “Amadeus” is a natural for the live-to-picture format. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, conducted by Constantine Kitsopoulos, will present four performances of Amadeus Live on Oct. 13-16. (Two concerts are part of the CSO at the Movies series.)

Ahead of his appearance at this year’s Plaza Classic Film Festival in El Paso, Texas, Abraham sat for a Zoom interview, in which he discussed his most famous role, Mozart’s music and Czech-born director Miloš Forman (who died in 2018). The occasion marked a homecoming for Abraham, who grew up in El Paso and reconnected with family and friends while there.

Here’s a condensed version of that interview:

“Amadeus” changed your life, obviously. It was in a way your breakthrough role at age 45. Can you tell us how you came to be cast as Salieri? Because it’s an amazing story.

My breakthrough role happened because of Miloš. It was truly like a miracle because every actor in the English language wanted that role. It’s a great role. And he refused to go with a big box-office attraction. He wanted to get someone who could do the role and would not be identified as a star. That [landing the role] was nothing but good luck. I mean, it was a miracle. 

“Amadeus,” of course, originated on the stage. It was a hit first in London, but then came to the United States and was an even bigger hit on Broadway. And the people who proceeded you in the role were stage legends such as Paul Scofield, Ian McKellen, David Dukes and Frank Langella. Was it intimidating to follow in their footsteps?

I’ve never been intimidated by any actor. None. I’ve always had a big opinion of myself, sometimes too big, frankly [laughs]. The only actor, I suppose, who would ever possibly intimidate me is Marlon Brando. A man I just adore, but aside from that, no. In fact, I must tell you if anyone thinks of the role of Salieri, it doesn't matter how many of those great actors, and they were great actors who did the role, the only person they’re going to think of is me.

That’s the power of movies, but it also was the power of the performance, frankly. Everyone who has done that role, whether it was in London or here in New York, has won a top award. So you’ve got to give a lot of the credit to the material, to playwright Peter Shaffer. 

Many don’t realize you were in two iconic films simultaneously; you were also working on Brian de Palma’s “Scarface,” which continues to be one of the most influential films of the last 50 years. So while you were making “Amadeus,” you were shuttling back and forth, right? To act on both films, you went from Czechoslovakia, as the Czech Republic was called then, and to L.A. 

It was pretty glamorous. But I mean, you would think, and I would like to make it sound like it was very difficult, but I must tell you, one was like a break from the other. So I would film for a while, then I would fly out to L.A. and do some work on “Scarface” with a completely different accent and a different character, then fly back out to Prague in Czechoslovakia. And it was like a relief. So it wasn’t hard. It was kind of fun, actually.

What was it like to do two such diverse roles simultaneously? Did you feel like you were undergoing creative whiplash? 

The kind of actor I am, I’m a character actor. And the first 15 years of my career were devoted to comedy, and I did street theater and children’s theater. And I’ve done live soap opera here in New York City. So I am adaptable. I like the idea of playing various different roles. So that was not a problem. The whiplash, no, it wasn’t. As I say, it was fun.

The music in “Amadeus” is so all-encompassing, and you actually play the piano at times. Did you have a musical background before you took on the role? What did you draw on to play the part?

Well, I like music, but no, I never played an instrument in my life. That was one of the most difficult things, learning to play a lot of different music. I learned to play pieces that were never even filmed because Miloš was so demanding of that. And I took a lot of lessons to play particular pieces of music. In fact, I felt very accomplished, but as soon as I stopped taking the lessons, it all vanished. I couldn’t play a note now.

No, I didn't have any experience with a musical instrument. Although I really love music, I began to love it even more once I started working on “Amadeus.” I didn't realize how magical, not just Mozart’s music is, but Salieri’s is pretty good, too. I listened to many pieces over and over again. And the magical thing about them is they don’t get old. It’s an astonishing thing. You begin to understand the mystery of great music. You don’t get tired of the same piece. It’s a wonderful discovery.

“Amadeus” has been credited for reviving Salieri’s music. Do you feel a sense of pride in that accomplishment, because his music, especially his operas, had been forgotten for 200 years at that point.

I feel very defensive about it. I don't want to hear people put him down too easily. If you take the time to listen, you'll hear some really good stuff, but he was also — you see, I'm becoming defensive again. He was also extremely generous. He set up all kinds of programs for widows of musicians or musicians who were broke and poor. He made sure that they had money to live on and money for their children’s education. And he was devoted to the church. He was a very good man.

The play and then the movie made him more of a villain than he was in real life. 

Well, that made him interesting, though, didn’t it?

Miloš Forman was so crucial in getting this movie made and casting you. What was it like to work with him? 

I owe him. I don't know how many directors would’ve had the courage to gamble the whole film on a couple of unknown actors. I mean, Pacino wanted the part. You name it, there were some very famous actors who showed up in costume with their own makeup people. So, yeah, I owe Miloš. He was a great director. I mean, really. And you’ve got to give credit to the producer [Saul Zaentz] for backing him up all the way. But it was Miloš. Miloš was the man. 

Did you ever get a chance to work with him again? You’ve worked with several great directors, such as Brian de Palma, Gus Van Sant and Guillermo del Toro.

We never worked together again, but we got together many times after that. Our paths kept crossing because he was getting a lot of awards, and I would be invited to present the awards. So we traveled a bit together, and we spent some time with each other. But unfortunately, I didn’t work with him again. I did work with [Brian] de Palma a couple of times. I like him very much. And Wes Anderson always invites me back, now that we’ve worked together. What a wonderful guy. Good Texan to work with. I mean, really Texan. 

The man himself is just a delight. I can’t say enough nice about him, but that also [applies to] the Coen Brothers. Now if I could work only for a small group of people like that again, I’d do it. Just Wes Anderson, the Coen Brothers, de Palma. Who’s not doing much work now. He lives nearby. And Tom Hulce once lived across the street. He’s a successful producer, so he travels a lot around the world.

So what was it like to be nominated for the best actor Oscar against Tom Hulce as Mozart? When that happens, the two candidates usually split the vote and then neither one wins, which was the case with Bette Davis and Anne Baxter in “All About Eve.”

I hate to disappoint people by saying it, but I wasn’t nervous about that at all. You know, the ride had been so great and what had been offered to me and the chance that I had, that was enough, because I knew after I saw the film, I knew that it was going to be a lasting piece of work. Not just because of my performance, the whole film was good. Everybody was good. I knew that the central character was neither Mozart nor Salieri. It was the music. And that really sustains the film.

I gave a good performance. So did Tom. I never felt envious at all. And frankly, every actor goes into these things, thinking and hoping that he’s going to take it all, everything, all of the awards everywhere. By the time I got to that award, I had been winning quite a few important ones in Europe and L.A. So I felt, I don’t want to say confident, because I didn’t want to curse it. I never felt worried about Tom or anyone else, either.

It’s a performance that stands the test of time. And the film really holds up, unlike other films from that era. There’s something very timeless in the way it was directed and acted.

I’m so glad to hear that because I can’t watch myself too often. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen the film. Does it still work?

Yes, definitely. Nowadays, maybe it would have been filmed in German, given its setting of Vienna. But back then, releasing a mainstream U.S. movie in a foreign language was verboten. Was that ever considered?

I don’t know, but when I make films all over the world, if they’re playing “Amadeus,” sometimes they play it with full orchestras, and if I’m in the city when they’re doing it, they invite me to come as a guest. So I have seen the film play in German, and I’ve seen it in British, too, which is a very different sound from American English [laughs].

It was remarkable that “Amadeus” was even made, because it was a period film, and it’s about classical music, which appeals to a niche audience, especially in the United States. No major studio wanted to back it, then Orion Pictures came through. Were the producers nervous about its prospects or did they think because of its Broadway pedigree, it was going to find an audience?

I’m not aware of what the machinations were of putting this thing together. I can tell you that it was a great triumph for Miloš to go back to Prague after he left [in 1968 for the United States]. He was persona non grata there because of the communist regime he escaped. So going back was a triumph for him. Also important was using the same rooms, the same places, the same instruments that Mozart actually played on, having some of the costumes from that same period from their museums. There’s nothing like being on location and also working in the Tyl Theater, where some of the original operas were performed originally. It makes a big difference. You can sense it, you can feel the history. So that was a part of the great triumph. I think it comes through, I think that’s part of the greatness of the film. It’s a sense and a smell, a touch of authenticity.

You mentioned earlier that several actors had shown up in full costume to audition for Salieri. Burt Reynolds, who of course was then at his height of his fame, was interested. But in what universe would Burt Reynolds be suitable for this role?

I wasn’t aware that he auditioned. It happens that I like his performances. He’s interesting to watch. I don’t know what he could do in this film, though. But there would’ve been some producers who would’ve insisted on having him because he was a very big star at the time. What a disaster that would’ve been, though. As much as you like him, I mean, he doesn't belong.

What’s interesting about “Amadeus” is that it’s not just a music biography, it takes a much larger, philosophical focus. One of its themes is how Salieri believes that music is a gift from God, and he’s going to do everything in his power to serve his master. What did this theme mean to you while you were making the film?

That’s what I loved the most about the character that Peter Shaffer created. Salieri was devoted to God and had devoted his whole life to God, but didn’t get the gift that he thought he deserved. Instead, it was given to this foulmouthed Mozart, you know? And so Salieri’s problem was not with Mozart. Salieri decided to go against God. I thought that was very dangerous and very bold. And that’s what I liked about him. He was not a small-minded man. He decided to go after God himself.

I’ll tell you, my mother, God rest her soul, was an Italian lady. She was a serious Catholic, and when I threw the crucifix in the fire [in the film], she was really upset. I said, “Mom, it’s just a movie.” She said, “No, no, you shouldn’t do that. When you do that kind of thing, a lot of people take it extremely seriously.” But I believe that Salieri took it seriously and was offended that God passed him by.

Are you a classic film fan, and if so, which movies would you have in an F. Murray Abraham Film Festival, should you ever have a chance to program something of that nature?

There’s so many — you know, you can’t pass over the Fred Astaire films. He’s a treat to watch in those musicals. I love things like “Singing in the Rain,” “The Wizard of Oz” — there’s so many. And don’t forget all the French films and then the great Mexican films by Cantinflas. I love “Dodsworth.” That gets me every time. “Paths of Glory,” “Dr. Strangelove,” “Lolita.” I love [Stanley] Kubrick, but there are the great modern films, some of the early Scorsese, and I think “Do the Right Thing” is a classic piece of work, frankly. Of course, the great “Citizen Kane” is still at the top of the list.  There are some small films, too. The list goes on and on. 

What was the ultimate impact of “Amadeus” on your career?

You don't have many opportunities like this. After I won the Academy Award, and I got all those notices and all the accolades and everything, I thought it’s going to be easy to get other roles like this, as good as this. And the stuff that was being offered to me was just so bad. I mean, it was a lot of money, but I didn’t see myself doing anything less than what I had accomplished. I’ve always thought of myself as a very serious actor and whether it’s comic roles or tragic roles, that’s the kind of thing I insisted on doing. So I just started doing only theater because it was the most satisfying, the Shakespeare and Molière and just any great stage role that was offered to me. And if you do that long enough, Hollywood forgets about you. So that’s it, you take your shot. I don’t have any regrets at all. 

Anything else that you would like to touch on?

Well, I do wish that today’s films would have the impact that something like “Amadeus” has had because it does have an impact on people. It reaches 9-year-old children and people of all ages. It especially reaches musicians, all kinds of musicians, jazz, classical, whatever they are; there's something about it that resonates. That’s the kind of film I would like to see more of, those are the films I’d like to be part of. Why we don’t is a mystery because we have examples of them. It’s possible to make them instead of paying $300 million on special effects. How about getting a good script, getting a good bunch of actors together, a good director and making a movie?